Conversations, VOLUME 11

Tim Dowley – The Story of Carols [Essay]

[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0281079269″ locale=”US” src=”” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”216″]The Story of Carols

A Meditation for the Advent and Christmas seasons
By Tim Dowley,

Author of 

Christian Music:
A Global History

Tim Dowley

Paperback: SPCK, 2018
Buy Now:  [ [easyazon_link identifier=”0281079269″ locale=”US” tag=”douloschristo-20″]Amazon[/easyazon_link] ]


Christmas Music for Those
Who Don’t like Christmas Music


*** All The Holiday Music
You Will Ever Need!

Carols fall into that category of things that people either love or loathe. Many warm to their traditional imagery and annual memories of Christmases past; others do their utmost to avoid them, associating carols with sentimental words and mawkish music.

Carols are normally narrative, contemplative or celebratory in content, often with a simple, straightforward sentiment and in strophic form. Most of the surviving medieval carols were written for the professional cathedral singers of Europe. Among the oldest is ‘Puer natus in Bethlehem’ (‘A Boy is Born in Bethlehem’), dating from the thirteenth century. Though the majority of carols were for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, others were for Holy Innocents’ Day, Epiphany and Twelfth Night  – for instance, the ‘numeral’ carol ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, which appears in England from the eighteenth century onwards. The carol ‘The Seven Joys of Mary’, which appears with many variants in the UK and the USA, grew out of pre-Reformation devotion to the Virgin and has survived for centuries in vernacular devotional verses in the folk tradition. The carol ‘I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In’, for which the earliest known printed text dates from 1666, possibly derives from European folk memory of the supposed journeyings of relics of the Magi, the ‘Three Kings of Cologne’.

The German tradition

In post-Reformation Germany, carols were more frequently sung in Catholic churches than Lutheran, where Christmas hymns predominated. Some  carols were sung antiphonally (in Wechsel), for instance ‘Quem pastores laudavere’ (‘Shepherds Sang Their Praises’), which was divided between four groups, each group taking a line in turn. ‘Maria durch ein’ Dornwald ging’ (‘Blest Mary Wanders Through the Thorn’) is characteristic of German fifteenth-century folk carols, and features the flowering rose, a popular emblem. The traditional Bohemian carol ‘Kommet, ihr Hirten’ (German) – in Czech, ‘Nesem vám noviny’ – (‘Come, All Ye Shepherds’) has been claimed by both language groups.

Many perennially popular German carols date from the seventeenth century, and were often linked with ‘shepherd dramas’, or with the tradition of cradle-rocking practised at midnight mass, so are normally in a fitting triple-time Wiegenlied (cradle song) beat.  One of the most popular German carols, ‘Resonet in laudibus’ (‘Let the Praises Resound’) is linked with cradle-rocking. Another ‘rocking’ carol is ‘Ein Kindlein in der Wiegen’ (‘He Smiles Within his Cradle’). The traditional Czech cradle song ‘Hajej, nynej, Jezísku’ (‘Jesu, Jesu, Baby Dear’) has similar origins. Some carols are found in several versions and – like many folk songs – seem to have grown through a process of accretion. A good example of this is ‘Es ist ein Rös’ entsprungen’ (‘Of Jesse’s Line Descended’ or ‘A Great and Mighty Wonder’), found in many different forms, and with up to 23 different verses!

The Lutherans also sang more formal chorales to celebrate Christmas. Luther wrote ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her’ (‘From Highest Heaven I Come to Tell’) for his own family to celebrate Christmas Eve, and set it to the riddling folk song/dance ‘Ich komm aus fremden Landen her’.  Early in the nineteenth century, a traditional German tune was linked to the words ‘O Tannenbaum’ to celebrate the Christmas tree, which some Lutherans erroneously believe was ‘invented’ by Martin Luther.

Translated into any number of languages, ‘Silent Night’ is sung by millions every Christmas. Possibly because of this carol’s  moving simplicity, a plethora of legends has accumulated to explain its  origins. In fact, ‘Heilige Nacht’ (‘Silent Night’) was probably first performed exactly two centuries ago, on Christmas Eve, 1818, at St Nicholas’ Church, Oberndorf,  Lower Austria, during midnight mass. The priest Joseph Mohr (1792–1848) wrote the six-stanza carol in 1816 and Franz Xaver Gruber (1787–1863), a school-teacher in nearby Arnsdorf, wrote the melody, which has the lilt of an Austrian folk melody. The carol became particularly popular with Lutheran Protestants, and was sung in their respective languages by British and German soldiers during the famous Christmas Eve truce of 1914, during the First World War, being one of their few shared carols. It has since been recorded by more than 300 artists, notably Bing Crosby and Mahalia Jackson.


The English tradition

The earliest authorized English Christmas hymn was Nahum Tate’s ever-popular and much parodied, ‘While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night’ (1700), paraphrasing Luke’s account of the  Nativity. For the next 80 years it remained the sole Christmas hymn ‘permitted to be used in [Anglican] churches’, and was sung to any tune in common measure (CM – Only with the publication of Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1860 did the now familiar ‘Winchester Old’ begin to oust other melodies then in use. Some English carols, such as some of those collected by Davies Gilbert and William Sandys in the early nineteenth century, were performed by village ‘waits’ as they visited houses on Christmas night. Best known of these ‘luck-visit’ carols is ‘God Rest you Merry, Gentlemen’, which probably originated in France, and boasts many versions throughout Europe.

Two important Victorian collections helped preserve the English carol: Carols for Christmas-tide (1853) by J. M. Neale and Thomas Helmore, and Christmas Carols New and Old (1871) by H. R. Bramley and Sir John Stainer. Other carols, traditional in the folk-music sense, have been carefully preserved. For instance, the collector Cecil Sharp transcribed the text and tune of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ from a singer in Gloucestershire, while Ralph Vaughan Williams collected ‘On Christmas Night, All Christians Sing’ (the ‘Sussex Carol’) in West Sussex.

The  essentially secular carol ‘Ding! Dong! Merrily on High’ was set by G. R. Woodward (1848–1934) to a vigorous dance, Branle de l’officiel by the French composer Thoinot Arbeau – the anagrammatical name of Jehan Tabourot (1519–1595). A popular modern English carol is Gustav Holst’s setting (‘Cranham’) of Christina  Rossetti’s poem, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’.


French and European traditional carols

Medieval French carols were based on the processionals sung as clergy and choir left the chancel, and derive from the line-dance, or carole, which French clergy are said to have performed in Gothic  cathedrals. Like Germany and the UK, France has a strong tradition of carols, such as the Breton ‘Entre le boeuf et l’âne gris’  (‘Between the ox and the grey ass’). ‘Guillô, pran ton tamborin’ (‘Gullio, Come, and Robin Too’) is a dance-like noël from Provence that forms part of a local repertory of pipe-and-tabor dances and noëls, played during midnight mass. The seventeenth-century French carol ‘Quelle est cette odeur agréable’ is based on the annunciation to the shepherds; ‘Quittez, pasteurs’ (‘O Leave Your Sheep’) has a traditional melody from Besançon; while the popular Il est né, le divin Enfant is sung to a tune similar to an old Normandy hunting tune, ‘Tête bizarde’.

The Basque traditional carol ‘Birjina gaztettobat zegoen’ (‘The  Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came’, or ‘Gabriel’s Message’) was first collected by Charles Bordes in 1895, and translated into English by the folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould (1834–1924), as was the popular ‘Oi Betleem!’ (‘Sing Lullaby!’), though in this case the English is a virtually new text rather than a translation.

The carol ‘Cold December’s Winds Were Stilled’, popular in the USA, is translated from a Catalan original, ‘El Desembre congelat’, and sung to a melody derived from an old drinking song, ‘C’est  notre grand-pèr Noé’. Probably the most popular Spanish carol in  English-speaking countries is the traditional ‘Veinticinco de  diciembre’ (‘Twenty-fifth of December’), with its recurrent ‘Fum, fum, fum!’ imitating a drum or guitar.

The Neapolitan carol ‘Quanno nascette Ninno’ (‘When Christ, the Son of Mary in Bethlehem was Born’) is typical of the carols  customarily sung by mountain shepherds in Italy. By tradition, they came down into the cities of southern Italy and Sicily at Christmas,  playing and singing pastoral music on the ciaramella (small shawm) and zampogna (bagpipe).



The tune to the carol ‘Ye Nations All, On You I Call’, attributed to ‘Singin’ Billy’ Walker in his Southern Harmony (1835), was probably notated from oral tradition, as was the tune to ‘Hail the Blest Morn!’ from unwritten music of American Baptists and Methodists. Christmas songs and carols also figure among spirituals. The folk-song collector Edric Connor stated that the only West Indian carol he could locate was ‘The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy’, which he heard performed by a 94-year-old Trinidadian in 1942. The music of the verse is in calypso idiom, but the refrain has a strongly African echo.

The US folk-song collector and performer John Jacob Niles (1892–1980) owned up to writing a number of so-called ‘folk carols’. Among his own compositions is ‘Sing We the Virgin Mary’, written in a faux-medieval style, and ‘I Wonder as I Wander’, which he claimed was based on an Appalachian fragment.

The evergreen carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ was written by Phillips Brooks (1835–1893), Episcopalian Rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, following a visit to the Shepherds’ Fields outside Bethlehem. The carol’s plea for peace reflects that Brooks’ ministry was during the Civil War. The musical setting invariably used in the USA was written by Lewis Redner, organist at Holy Trinity, purportedly after waking from deep slumber at Christmas.

The New Englander Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810–1876) expressed a similar longing for peace in ‘It Came Upon the Midnight Clear’, the last stanza looking to the day ‘when peace shall over all the earth / its ancient splendours fling.’ Another American clergyman remembered for a single Christmas carol is John Henry Hopkins Jr (1820–1891), who first published ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’ in Carols, Hymns, and Songs in 1863. ‘O Holy Night’ is a version by John Sullivan Dwight of Cantique de Noël, by Adolphe-Charles Adam (1803–1856).

The opening two verses of ‘Away in a Manger’ originally appeared anonymously in 1885, in a Lutheran Sunday school book, Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families by J. C. File, while the third verse was added by John Thomas McFarland (1851–1913). It is frequently alleged that the text is by Martin Luther, a completely groundless claim, possibly originating from the carol’s first appearance in a Lutheran publication in 1884, where it was suggested it be sung to the tune of ‘Home! Sweet Home!’

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

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